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Eye On Boise

Pete Cenarrusa, Idaho’s longest serving elected official, dies at age 95

Pete Cenarrusa (Boise State University)
Pete Cenarrusa (Boise State University)

Pete Cenarrusa, Idaho’s longest-serving elected official ever, died today at the age of 95 at his Boise home, after a three-year battle with cancer. Cenarrusa, who was Idaho’s elected secretary of state from 1967 to 2003,  also served nine terms in the Idaho House, including three as speaker; that adds up to 52 straight years of service in Idaho’s Capitol. Born in Carey, Idaho to Basque immigrants, Cenarrusa is a direct descendant of the first Spanish ambassador to the United States, who furnished clothing and munitions to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. A University of Idaho graduate, he was a national collegiate boxing champion, a teacher and coach, a Marine Corps veteran, a private pilot, and with wife Freda, a successful and prominent sheep rancher for more than four decades.

Cenarrusa, for whom Idaho’s largest state government office building at 450 W. State St. is named,  is survived by Freda, his wife of 66 years; his daughter-in-law Jean Cenarrusa-Jacobson, two grandsons, two great-grandsons - including one just born Saturday - and numerous nieces and nephews; he was preceded in death by his parents, his four siblings, and his son Joe, who died in a plane crash in 1997. You can read Cenarrusa’s full obituary here. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Keith Ridler.

On Monday morning, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter issued this statement: “No one could have been a better or more passionate advocate for the Basque people, for fair and transparent elections, or for responsible stewardship of our public lands than Pete Cenarrusa. He was an Idaho original, and I was among many in state government – on both sides of the aisle – who benefited greatly from his advice, counsel and friendship. It’s hard to imagine Idaho politics without Pete there. He loved the arena – encouraging public involvement, standing firm on his principles, gently nudging us all toward doing the right thing, and keeping us anchored in reality. Miss Lori and I send his tireless wife Freda and all Pete’s family and friends our love, sympathy and prayers.”



Former Idaho Secretary of State Cenarrusa dies
By KEITH RIDLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Pete T. Cenarrusa, a Basque-American who held state office in Idaho uninterrupted for more than five decades and spent nearly as long in the sheep business, has died. He was 95.

Cenarrusa died about noon on Sunday at his home in Boise after a battle with lung cancer, said Roy Eiguren, president of the Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque Culture. Cenarrusa's wife of 66 years, Freda, was at his side.

"He was an exceptional human being who did so much for Idaho and its people," said Eiguren. "He will be deeply missed."

Cenarrusa was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives as a Republican in 1950 and served nine terms, including three terms as Speaker. Governor Don Samuelson appointed him Idaho Secretary of State in 1967.

He held that post for nearly 36 years, retiring in 2003 at age 85. His longtime chief deputy, fellow Basque Ben Ysursa, succeeded him as secretary of state.

"He was a great mentor and friend to me for over 40 years," said Ysursa. "He'll be sorely missed. He was the epitome of a true public servant. He was respected by all Idahoans — his integrity and devotion to making government accessible and responsible. He was just a good man."

Quane Kenyon, a former reporter for The Associated Press, covered Idaho politics for 25 years and wrote a book about Cenarrusa titled "Bizkaia to Boise."

"If all public office holders were as honest and straightforward as Pete the nation would be much better off," Kenyon said. "He was the most prominent Basque in the United States for many years."

Pete Thomas Cenarrusa was born Dec. 16, 1917, in Carey, Idaho, the family said in a short biography. His parents were Joe Cenarrusa and Ramona Gardoqui, immigrants to the United States from the Province of Bizkaia in the Basque Country of Spain. His parents came from cities 8 miles apart in Spain but met for the first time in 1914 in Shoshone, Idaho, where they later married.

Cenarrusa was the second of five children. All spoke Basque, only learning English when they entered primary school in Bellevue. Cenarrusa retained his love of the Basque language throughout his life, and made more than a dozen trips to the Basque Country.

He graduated from Bellevue High School in 1936 and the University of Idaho in 1940 with degrees in agriculture and animal husbandry. He was a member of the university's boxing team that won a national intercollegiate championship in 1940, and he sometimes recalled his boxing youth.

"He would tell me he'd rather take a beating than give a speech," said Ysursa. "He'd rather have a good-natured chat and shoot the breeze than give a formal presentation."

After college, Cenarrusa taught high school in Cambridge, Carey and Glenns Ferry, and also coached football. He joined the Marine Corps in 1942, went through flight training, and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant.

For 18 months, he was an instructor in Naval Aviation in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was eventually ordered to North Carolina to train in a dive bomber for the invasion of Japan, but the war ended when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Cenarrusa went into inactive reserve until his retirement in 1963 with the rank of major. He continued to fly as a private pilot, logging more than 15,000 hours of flight time.

Kenyon said that Cenarrusa often flew to parts of the state in connection with his duties as secretary of state as one of five members on the Idaho Land Board. He also flew to the family's sheep business operations in Idaho, Nevada, Arizona and California that he and his wife owned from 1954 to 2000.

"He was a sheep man," Kenyon said. "He was a Republican second and a politician third."

The family said that Cenarrusa was inducted into numerous halls of fame. Those included the Agriculture, Athletic, Republican, Basque of the World, Idaho Hall of Fame, and the University of Idaho Hall of Fame. In 2010 he was awarded Light of Bizkaia, Basque Country Hall of Fame, by the government of Bizkaia.

He and his wife also started what eventually became the Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque Culture, which works to preserve the Basque culture and identity.

"It's part of his legacy that will continue very strongly," said Ysursa. "He was a great asset to the Basque community here and abroad. His influence will be missed. That's a void that's going to be very hard to fill."

Cenarrusa is survived by his wife, daughter-in-law Jean Cenarrusa-Jacobson and her husband Greg, two grandsons and two great grandchildren. One of the great grandchildren, a boy, was born on Saturday. His parents and siblings preceded him in death. A son, Joe Cenarrusa, died in an aircraft accident in 1997.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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